The choral director struggles to get the roomful of mostly white-haired men in red vests and bow ties into formation amid grumbles and even outright insurrection. As they shuffle to their respective positions, a low, booming voice protests.
“Why don’t we sing instead of all of this crap?”
A much higher voice offers a wry response, “I think we’ve found the bass.”
Such is the behind-the-scenes banter between members of the Big “D” Chorus, the neighborhood chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America – or SPEBSQSA. The name is itself a tongue-in-cheek jab at New Deal-era “alphabet reform” agencies like the Public Works Administration (PWA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which were active at the time of the Society’s founding in 1938.
The Big “D” members, once assembled for their weekly meeting at Town Village Retirement Home at Coit and Forest, go through their warm-up routine of neck, throat, chest and shoulder exercises. Then they tune up.
“Ding, dong, ding, dong, ding, dong.” Their voices get higher and tighter as they repeat the mantra.
“One, one, one, one, one….” The low hum builds and resonates until the entire room is filled with sound, almost like a Dolby sound check.
This is just the taste of what’s to come. When they’re on and singing actual songs, their four-part harmonies can make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up. When they’re off – well, we’re sure that hardly ever happens.
Once in tune, they make their way to the dining hall where an audience of elderly men and women are waiting. They start off with an oldie but goodie called “The Old Songs,” a throwback to a happier time for the retirement home residents.
“The old songs, the old songs. The good ol’ songs to me. I love to hear those minor chords and good close harmonies.”
The audience is transported to the days of their youth, when the old songs were the popular tunes of the day. The barbershop style saw its heyday in the early 1900s on Tin Pan alley and the Vaudeville circuit. The Big “D” Chorus began recruiting bass, baritone, tenor and lead singers to perform at competitions and charitable events on June 3, 1946 – and it’s still going strong 60 years later.
The current president, Preston Hollow resident Don James, says his musical life began at birth. His mother was the church pianist. Growing up in a small town with nothing to do, his options were limited.
“When mom’s the pianist at church, you go to church. At age 9, that’s when it got me. I can literally, like yesterday, remember sitting in the back of the church auditorium with friends and singing the bass notes as best we could, making our voices as low as we could.”
A natural bass, James went on to sing in the church choir and joined the glee club in college. The club toured in and out of state performing popular tunes and even some barbershop songs. After college, he went back to singing in church choirs but wanted to find a general chorus. In the early ‘70s, a friend suggested another barbershop group, the Town North Chorus. Ten years ago, he joined Big “D.”
They’ve met at various locations in Preston Hollow and North Dallas since then. After meetings at their current location, they have an “afterglow” at the Clarion Hotel lounge where they get something to eat and drink, and then sing some more.
And that’s the reason they keep coming back – the harmony. It is at once calming and hair-raising. The end product is greater than the sum of its four parts. The barbershop form allows a group of average singers to create an extraordinary sound.
Fellow Preston Hollow resident and Big “D” member Larry Dolan says he was hooked by that unique sound during a Big “D” open house at Walnut Hill Recreation Center 10 years ago.
“It’s just the chords, you know. It was something I wanted to replicate.”
It’s also something the group is trying to perpetuate. Barbershop music is a part of Americana – a link to our musical heritage. The group’s members are trying to pass that knowledge to the next generation with their Young Men in Harmony outreach program in which they provide music and send quartets to music classes to encourage young people to keep the style alive for posterity.
The Big “D” Chorus keeps a busy schedule of performances, too, mostly for area retirement homes. The directors and workers at the homes tell them that the residents respond especially well to music, and the barbershop songs are familiar to many of them.
Dolan recalls a visit to an Alzheimer’s unit at which one of the nurses warned them not to be offended if audience members walked out in the middle of the show.
“Someone said, ‘Offended? That happens all the time,’” Dolan laughs, but then adds on a more serious note: “They might not remember what they had for breakfast, but when we sing a song from the ‘40s, they just light up. There is just an overall sense that maybe we’re bringing a little glimpse of a special time in their life.
“A lot of times, their family is not there. They don’t get a lot of visitors. What we do is very easy, but this music can affect people’s lives.”
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